He walked in with a thick white envelope, sat at the table after taking off his coat, and opened it.
Dublin—which they had just returned from
visiting. They had gone to Belfast
too, but decided against it almost before they drove into the city. They stayed
overnight at a cheap motel at its outskirts and in the morning hit the road.
Dublin. One bedroom. Half a bath. Nine
hundred square feet. Ninth floor. In the very bowels of the slums. No car.
Cashier at the petrol station five blocks away. Nine pounds fifty-fucking-five
per hour. Thirty hours a week.
“I love you,” she murmured, and began sobbing again.
It was various literature, pamphlets, and forms from the Debt Management people. They had approved his and Lee’s application.
They would not be able to keep the home.
Dublin it is, then.”
Lee’s mother had financed the trip. She PayPal’d eight hundred quid into her account after speaking to her two weeks ago. He took the time to speak to Mrs. Kelly after they got back, and was surprised how civil she was.
“How’s she doing?”
“Depressed,” he replied, glancing over his shoulder. Lee had walked into the kitchen to get something to eat. “Thanks again, Mrs. Kelly.”
“Do you know the number?”
“The honest one? No. The one she tells me? Ninety-two.”
Lee walked out and back into the bedroom, a bowl of peanuts in her grip.
“Could it be the one she tells you and the honest one are one and the same this time?”
“Would you trust that possibility, Mrs. Kelly?”
“Quinn was such an enormous influence on her. He’s the one who taught her to drink. I told him not to do it, but ... well, he never listened to me.”
“You told me he was an alcoholic too.”
“He was a great man. He was imperfect like the rest of us, just like you are. Don’t judge him, Ronan.”
“I wouldn’t presume to.”
“Ninety-two days ... well, that’s something, I suppose. And how is your job search going?”
He knew she wouldn’t appreciate anything but the short answer. “Want ads, Craigslist, gassing up and driving all over town, the Internet, calling friends. Nothing.”
It occurred to him that he hadn’t shared that story with her yet, and thought she might appreciate it.
“Oh, right. I changed a tire for Karl Watson.”
She gasped. “Karl Watson? The Karl Watson?”
He chuckled. “The very one.”
“Well, now, that can’t be! A man of that wealth wouldn’t be driving around Hell’s Creation without a butler or some such, would he! He’d probably have ten with him ready to help with any contingency, not to mention armed security! He probably only travels in convoys! I’m sure you didn’t help the Karl Watson!”
Ronan closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You’re probably right, Mrs. Kelly. Hey—Lee’s in the bedroom, and I’m sure she wants to say hello. Shall I get her for you?”
“Keep your chin up, Ronan dear. I’m sure something is coming along soon enough.”
He knew statements like that were Mrs. Kelly’s way of dismissing him, so he stood and walked into the bedroom. Lee was at the computer. She had earphones on. He tapped her on the shoulder and handed the cell to her. She glanced up at him with a Why is it my turn? look on her face, took the earphones off, and put the cell against her right ear.
“Hi, Mom. How are you?”
Eight months later
He bent over the kitchen sink and examined the wallpaper directly behind it.
It was a stain of some sort, barely visible even from this range. Someone had taken serious pains to wipe as much of it away as he or she could.
A food stain would make sense ... maybe.
He traced a finger around it. It was a barely visible rust discoloration against the striping, like someone had thrown tomatoes at it. He stopped tracing when he ran into what looked like dried bits of whatever had been chucked between the wall and the countertop. Coagulated bits.
He withdrew his hand. So ... not tomato, then.
He went to the sink and squeezed a generous puddle of dish soap into his hands and turned on the water. It always came out a bit brown at first, and took at least half a minute to warm up.
He didn’t wait. He lathered up, rinsed the suds off, slammed the handle down in disgust, and yanked a fistful of paper towel down from the dispenser just a couple feet to the right of the stain.
This will be a good lesson for my children. Always assume, kids, that the barely visible red stain in the kitchen that you’ve traced with your index finger is not from tomatoes or any tomato-based product. Now who wants to read some Winnie-the-Pooh?
Eight months. Eight bloody months.
Standing in a neverending lake of fire in Hell sounded better.
But here he was. And here was Lee too.
She was an “associate” at the nearest Tesco a half-hour’s bus ride away. She wore a red vest and greeted customers at the door. For the same wage. And twenty-five hours.
Fifty-five total hours a week for nine pounds fifty-fucking five equaled five hundred twenty-five and two fucking bits a week.
Rent on this shithole was fifteen hundred a month—over seventy percent of their combined take-home. They were eating rice and beans three nights a week and skipping breakfast. No snacks. No cable television. They had to invest in a heating blanket for the bed, because the window in their bedroom might as well have not existed, just a fucking hole to the elements. They could actually feel the wind when it blew, no matter the direction it came from.
Two weeks ago she screamed as she showered. He burst in to check what was wrong. She gesticulated wildly to the corner of the stall.
It was without doubt the biggest cockroach he had ever seen—four inches long at least. He went to smash it, but it zig-zagged like it had smoked crack into the kitchen and under the counter.
At night they could hear mice scurrying here and there. One morning they found their breakfast cereal had been bitten into and scattered over the pantry shelf. With mouse crap mixed into it.
Their neighbor was a twenty-something drug dealer (they guessed) with a penchant for what sounded like very painful sex.
“OHHHHH CHRIST! CHRIST! CHRIST! CHRISSSSSSST! OUCH! HARDERHARDERHARDER YOU FECKIN’ TWAT OUCH BITCH YEAH BITE ME BITE ME BITE MEEEEEE!”
They could hear the sloppiness of it, like a frantic toilet plunger, and smell the meth that always went with it, and feel the incessant rhythm, all of which never occurred at any hour other than wholly indecent.
Lee found it funny. He didn’t.
“Seventeen squared,” she said one recent dismal morning.
“Seventeen ... what—?” he began, and stopped. She was sitting across from him and smiling serenely, which almost always meant trouble.
“As in ... seventeen to the second power?” He watched her carefully. “As in seventeen times seventeen?”
She nodded happily, miserably.
He did the mental math. “Two hundred ... eighty ... nine? Is that right?”
“It’s a record. At least since I’ve been honestly counting.”
“Two hundred eighty-nine days.”
She smiled wider. It felt like a punch in his solar plexus.
Almost without thinking, he reached for her hand and squeezed it. “Sober in hell for almost four-fifths of a bloody year.” He shook his head in genuine disbelief. “How’s that possible?”
Her eyes glassed over. “I honestly, honesty, honestly don’t know, Ronan.”
“Good number, two eighty-nine. Isn’t that biblical or something?”
“That’s one hundred forty-four—as in thousand. The number of those saved on Judgment Day.”
“As sure as fuck we could use saving.”
“I’m pretty sure we’re one of the condemned,” she murmured, squeezing his hand, then taking it in both of hers. “Like this flat should be.”
When he was a teenager, he worked at a petrol station. To make his inheritance stretch as far as possible, he continued working at one while at university.
It wasn’t hard work, and often allowed for study time between customers. He rang them up and sometimes did superficial repairs when the mechanics in the adjacent garage were full up. They liked him and took him under their wing. He liked them back, much more so than his classmates, who were too busy trying to puff themselves up around each other. He came from a lower-income family than most of them, and they knew it, and treated him like he was their inferior. His mechanic mates at the Topaz never treated him like that. He was one of the boys, and he appreciated it. Today, years later, he still kept in touch with Tony and Ian. Both had long since married and had children. Tony was his best man, and Ian had moved to
, with his new wife. Reykjavik, Iceland
Tony was still in
Dublin, but had graduated
from being a car mechanic to selling them. He was an almost instant success, a
natural salesman. The last Ronan had heard, ol’ Ton’ had moved to Ranelagh in Dublin 6, a nice
He thought of calling him, but couldn’t. Not now. Not like this. Lee, who knew Tony as well and was close to him, had suggested it, too. But he just couldn’t.
“If I live to a thousand, I won’t forgive myself,” she said. He had just come home and settled himself. She handed him a grilled cheese sandwich and sat at the table next to him. She had already eaten. It was late and he was knackered.
He gazed at her between bites.
She had said that many times now—“If I live to a thousand, I won’t forgive myself.” Countless times, especially in this hell-hole. He’d learned that it was her way of saying that she was struggling not to reach for a bottle.
He wiped his hand on his pant leg and reached for her hand. They’d done a lot of that since moving here—reaching for the other’s hand.
“I dreamt of Tony last night,” she said once he’d taken hold of it.
“He was living in a mansion, and had, like, a hundred wives. I was one of ‘em.”
He grinned. “Really! And?”
“He tried to get a leg over, and I let him. But just before I came he exploded—like literally! I was thrown off him into the wall. I slid down it, but before I could scream, I looked up. Tony’d blown up into thousands of quid! It was fallin’ all around me! I was rollin’ around in it, happy as a clam, half-naked and wonderin’ where the fuck my husband was. Then I realized you were me feckin’ husband, and I woke up.”
She glanced at him sheepishly. “Whaddya think?”
“About which part?” he chuckled. “You bangin’ my good friend, or the cash?”
She shrugged. “Either?”
“Was he any good?”
“Fair to midland. Too much groaning. Not enough thrusting.”
Her hand was shaking slightly. He gazed down at it, then at her.
She groaned. “It’s half past ten, Ro. I’m so tired I can barely stand. There may not even be a meeting within walking distance.”
But there was, and he knew it, even if she didn’t. An empty store not three blocks away was used by the Church and had meetings scheduled around the clock, one every two hours. They’d never been there. Another one would start at midnight, just an hour and a half from now.
All this he shared with her. He expected she’d be pissed, but she leaned forward and kissed him instead. He held her face. He could feel just how close to the edge she was.
“I’d rather you jump Tony than jump a bottle,” he told her when their lips parted. “So ... meeting?”
“If I go, will you jump me later?”
“I smell like I rolled around in a grease pit, my darling bride, and I’m like you—so tired I’m seeing double.”
She lifted and dropped her eyebrows several times. “You can be the swarthy gas station attendant and I can be the innocent young chatelaine whose tank needs filling up.”
He chuckled and kissed her again. “My little skank. What shall it be, regular unleaded or Ronan’s special ultra-leaded?”
She smirked. “Need you ask?”
Surprisingly, there were eight people, not including them, that showed up at the midnight meeting.
The empty store once housed a candy shoppe. It smelled faintly of cinnamon and peppermint, chocolate and taffy, joy and innocence. All lost. Probably for many years now.
“Christ,” murmured Lee, interrupting his thoughts. She leaned into him. “This is really fucking depressing. Look, Ronan—a soda fountain! When was the last time you saw a real soda fountain?”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one,” he admitted, glancing at the beautiful, carved handles on the dispenser and the tarnished brass everywhere, and the empty glass containers here and there. The floor was wooden and the bar stools had round black seats covered in a thin layer of dust from the last time they had been wiped down, which was probably no sooner than several months ago. The ceiling was trimmed in mahogany or something more expensive. He imagined children sitting on the stools and spinning gleefully while others sipped root beer floats from thick glass mugs.
Once light and goodness flowed in through those big panes of glass, and kids flowed in through that lovely door with the beautiful trimming, and the proprietor probably hurried here and there fetching this treat or that and collecting change and ringing it up on that antique cash register. All was good in the world.
But it wasn’t. For he and the kids and the shoppe had come into an Iron Age of indifference, malice, greed, and cruelty, and the sun had faded behind gathering, dark clouds, and the kids huddled at home with parents who could no longer afford their allowance, and the shop owner, saddened and embittered, had closed up one day and walked away, and never came back.
The facilitator came in, and they began. He was a priest, and offered a prayer for strength. The group said “Amen,” and fell into silence. Sometimes that wait was embarrassingly long, and as Ronan sat there, he thought it might happen again. In the past, he’d tired of waiting, and so often broke the ice, even if he really didn’t have anything to say.
A minute passed. Then two.
Fuck it! he thought, thinking that he wanted nothing more than to get home and into bed, and went to start, but Lee, surprising him, beat him to the punch.
“Hello,” she said softly, “my name is Lee, and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hello, Lee,” intoned the group. He held her hand and gave it a grateful squeeze.
The group waited. Lee stared at the floor in front of her feet. He knew from experience that she was gathering the courage to say something.
“It’s been ... two hundred ...” She stopped and smiled briefly at him. “It’s been seventeen squared days since my last drink.”
Everyone looked confused. The priest, however, smiled.
“Seventeen periods of seventeen days each,” he said. “What a helpful way of expressing it. Please, Lee, go on. And forgive me for interrupting. I know I shouldn’t.”
“Seventeen,” she said after a time. The word came out like it had been tortured from her. “I’m really, really struggling right now. I hate my life ... but I love my husband ...”
She glanced at him. Her eyes were wet. “It’s all shit ... all of it ... cockroaches and blood stains ... meth stench from the bloke next door ... a shit job ... no light in the day, no relief at night, and that dull fuckin’ ache in my chest like my heart is dyin’ ... like if I don’t find a way out, it’ll wither, and then fuck all, none of it will matter, none of it can matter, it’s all shit ...”
That’s when Ronan noticed him. He was sitting four seats to Lee’s right. He was a little person maybe four feet tall. He had dark skin and wore what had to be tailored clothing, the kind whose expense was obvious at first glance.
One didn’t see little persons all that often. At least, that was Ronan’s experience.
Lee certainly had the group’s attention. Her candor, he thought, had shocked them. So many times these meetings devolved into measured sentimentality and repressed truths and, in general, the utter unwillingness to get the real shit—the foul, toxic shit—out into the open. Here Lee was going for broke.
She released his hand and balled her fists and slammed them against her temples a couple of times, then sniffled.
“Fuck it,” she murmured to the floor. “Just ... fuck—it.”
The priest didn’t seem offended by her language. No one did. The little person watched her intently. Ronan hadn’t seen her act like this before, and was worried. He thought of interrupting her, but then she stood abruptly and kicked her chair away. It clattered noisily against the bar and collapsed to its side.
“Fuck it!” she yelled.
Ronan didn’t know what to do. This was something completely new. She wasn’t losing anything. If anything, he thought, she was fighting furiously to gain something, to grab something. He stared up at her and fought the urge to intervene and shush her up.
“Fuck—it!” she yelled again, slamming her fists against her hips with each word.
She turned and ran to the bar and dragged her index finger over it and glared at the dust that came up like a tiny contrail.
“This ... cannot ... cannot continue!” she said, wiping her finger madly on her pant leg. “It just can’t!” She slammed her fist on the bar. Dust puffed up around her. “I ... I can’t let it continue ... I can’t ...”
She marched to the center of the group. “My name is Lee Sutton, and I am a goddamn alcoholic. But I’m also a good person. I don’t deserve any of this shit! I am a good person! I am!”
She gazed up and around herself, turning slowly in place. “I am this candy shoppe. I am empty and full of dust and sadness ... and it must end. It must! Must—must—must! I must stop being sad and empty. I must stop waiting for this fucked-up world to look at me and come to me and reopen me. I must! I MUST!”
She raised her hands above her head and turned again, then again, then again, spinning like a tragic ballerina. It tore at Ronan, who watched, his mouth open.
“It won’t come to me,” she cried to the ceiling. “It won’t.” She marched to the door and stared into the damp dark outside. “This place brought sunshine to itself. It brought sweetness to itself. It brought happiness to itself. It gave it back in a greater quantity than it received. That’s how it works! That’s how it’s supposed to work! That’s how it should always fucking work! It added to the universe. It expanded the universe. Even so, look what happened to it. It’s unfair, and I won’t stand for it anymore!”
She slowly lowered her arms and turned back to face the group. “Look! Please! Look at it!”
The group dutifully glanced around themselves, then back at her.
“I drank on the job. I was a nurse, and I drank on the job, and I got fired and my license suspended. And you know what? They did the right thing. They did! I was so drunk at work sometimes that I’d black out. I can’t remember whole weeks. And here I was giving medications and checking vitals and watching over children and infants ...”
She brought her stare to him. “And I lied and lied and lied to the finest human being I’ve ever known—my sweet, sweet husband. That’s the worst of it. He lost his job because of me. He was the manager of one of Carlingford’s best inns. It was good money. It came with some prestige, too. He lost it because I was drunk and in a ditch, and he ignored the owner’s orders to stay at work and he hurried out to me, even though I was okay. He went with me to the police station, and bailed me out and took me home, where the rat-bastard coward of a boss had fired him—on our feckin’ answer phone!”
She gazed back up at the ceiling like she was praying for something to come and smash the life out of her. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She sniffled.
Ronan glanced at the rest of the group. They appeared to be in utter awe. It matched precisely how he felt. His bride was experiencing a catharsis of some kind, and he wasn’t just a little fearful where it might end up. The facilitator watched her with compassion, enough to make an impression on him.
“We lost our home. We live down the street in what can only charitably be described as a shithole. You don’t want to hear what I call it when I’m in an un-charitable mood, which is most of the fucking time.”
She looked at him again. “I’m sorry, Ronan. I’m really so sorry. I haven’t lied to you this time. It really is seventeen squared days since I’ve had a drink. But I’m desperate for one right now ... so fuckin’ desperate. The rubbing alcohol in the cabinet at home ... you have no idea ...
“The tunnel won’t end, won’t shed even a little light, and I’m lost. I’m like this candy store—I’m lost. I’m alone ... I feel like no light will ever come again. I know what I’ve got to do, but I’ve no strength with which to do it! I want the light again. I want my shoppe to open again. I want happiness to be mine again so I can give it in double strength back.”
The three other women in the group had wet faces. So did the little person. So did he.
She went to say something more, but shook her head, grabbed her chair and brought it back. She plopped resignedly down next to him, put her head in her hands, and sobbed. Ronan put his arm around her and pulled her close. She didn’t seem to notice.
He didn’t remember much of what happened after that. The facilitator rose and knelt in front of her and spoke very softly to her, so softly that Ronan couldn’t hear what he said.
The priest went and sat back down. Several others spoke shortly afterward. All thanked Lee for her outburst. The little person didn’t add anything.
And then it was over. She and Ronan stood in a circle with the rest of them, clasping hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer; the meeting broke up and the sad little candy shoppe was left empty and dark once more.
Lee didn’t speak on the walk home. She disrobed once they got in, crawled into bed, and pulled the covers up to her nose. He sat next to her. She reached for his hand.